Higher Education or Technical Training?

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Today I read The Shape of Higher Ed to Come by Steven Mintz. It is a powerful overview of where all of education, not just higher education, is moving. The following thoughts are based on 20 years of experience teaching mathematics at the community college level.

I’ll start with one of Professor Mintz’s conclusions:

A second conclusion is that higher education’s key stakeholders share a collective responsibility of ensuring that rigor and quality remains high, not only at highly selective institutions, but across the post-secondary ecosystem. We must ensure that higher education remains higher, and is not reduced simply to job training, and that online providers do not become digital diploma mills offering a 21st century electronic version of a correspondence course.

This appeal will, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears. The key stakeholders no longer include faculty. Faculty have forsaken their vocation as teacher/scholar for job security. As a result, many of the curriculum and pedagogy decisions are no longer within the governance rights of faculty. Hence, as Professor Mintz notes: Stanford’s D-School vision was built around three basic ideas: That an undergraduate education should focus on skills rather than knowledge; that students should be able spread education across a lifetime; and that the gen ed/major/elective model should be replaced by short intro courses, a “mission” that concentrates on a particular problem, and an experiential learning experience such as an internship.

If a major research university concedes the pursuit of knowledge to skills training, college academics are dead. The acquisition of cognitive skills is a conditioning process; it is not college education. Certificates for the development of cognitive skills differ from certificates in mechanical skills only in skills type.

I once told an administrator, there is no such thing as just-in-time college education. Although I stand by that statement, just-in-time technical training is possible. Redefining colleges as technical training centers for students not interested in college academics betrays academic freedom as a pursuit of truth: Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. [AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure] There is no defense for academic freedom in a workforce training center that was organized by administrators bending the knee to legislators.

The current transition from college academics to job skills training is entrenched politically and socially. Politicians continue to peddle technical skills as the yellow brick road to jobs and financial security. The fact that industry no longer does long term planning is irrelevant. Curriculum and pedagogy can always be revised to meet workforce training demand.

I encourage everyone to read The Shape of Higher Ed to Come by Steven Mintz. There are college faculty fighting to preserve the integrity of college education; they need your support. A society’s culture and ideals are preserved by the pursuit of knowledge. Skills training only provides material prosperity until new job requirements are defined.

As always, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck”.

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